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UAMS Gets $2.1M For Marshallese Health Study

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The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has been awarded a $2.1 million grant to attempt to reduce diabetes in the Marshallese community in northwest Arkansas.

“The Marshallese community has a tremendous diabetes burden,” Dr. Peter Kohler, UAMS Northwest vice chancellor, told Arkansas Business last week.

He said about 50 percent of Marshallese adults have diabetes. The percentage of Americans overall with diabetes is about 8 percent, said Pearl McElfish, director of research at UAMS Northwest, who is involved in the study.

“It’s an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes unlike anything we’ve seen in any population,” McElfish said. “So it’s really important to find an intervention that is effective within this community.”

Attempts in the past have been made to reduce diabetes in the community, but the efforts haven’t worked, Kohler said. He hopes this time is different.

UAMS received the money for the three-year study of 200-300 families from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute of Washington.

Northwest Arkansas has between 8,000 and 12,000 Marshallese residents, the largest Marshallese population in the United States.

Kohler said the Marshallese had a diet of fruit and fish when they were on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, but that changed to an unhealthy one when they came to Arkansas decades ago. Their culture hasn’t helped either, he said.

In their culture, someone will prepare the food for the family and they will all eat together. “They consider it disrespectful not to eat what you’re given,” he said.

Kohler said he hopes the study will teach families that it’s OK not to clean their plates.

“We’re going to … work more with the whole family and get them to change the way they work, the way they eat and promote exercise,” he said. That “should be able to delay the onset of diabetes complications that they have in such large numbers.”

McElfish said six people, including two Marshallese, will be hired this fall to help with the study. The study is being conducted in partnership with the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese and the Gaps in Services to the Marshallese Task Force.

Kohler said he hopes the study will result in the prevention of diabetes or make the complications from diabetes less severe.

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute received 325 applications and only 8 percent of new applications were funded, he said.

“So it’s like a home run for us,” Kohler said.

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